Internet Access: a human right?

The recent MTN adverts looming large on the billboards of Kampala city and in the local press in Uganda set me thinking about this most interesting development. The story is as follows.

In June 2011, the 17th session of the United Nations’ Human Rights Council declared internet access a human right. This is good news indeed, but let’s think about this in terms of the context of the UN Declaration. It was in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, the Wikileaks saga, the Egyptian revolution, and the reality of states blocking the internet in times of political unrest (“going dark” as they say) that the UN declared such State action a limitation on political freedom. In our age when blogs, Facebook, and Tweets have become seriously important tools for social justice, the civil and political rights of people to seek, receive, and share information must be upheld according to the UN. Sure, states do have to worry about national security and terrorism, but silencing the voice of the man and woman on the street is simply unjust. So far, so good.

However, this is a complicated issue, and if we read more about the various kinds of rights, we come to realise that rights are tricky things: they can be “active” or “passive”; “basic” or “secondary”; “natural” or “instrumental”; “positive” or “negative”; “public” or “private”. Deeper analysis reveals that a right to something is generally negative (or “empty”) unless there is an associated duty bearer. Let me give a simple example: an employee has the right to claim a salary as stipulated in his or her contract; the employer is the associated duty bearer and is obligated to pay the salary.

A deeper investigation of the nature of rights in relation to internet access reveals that we do not, in fact, have a “positive” right to it, rather, the State has a duty not to disconnect us, if we are connected, especially in times of social and political unrest. This means that the right to internet access is a negative right – it does not mean that we have a positive right to claim it free from the State or any of the local Internet Service Providers.

The right to internet access brings me to another related issue. As of the 2011 Census, Uganda’s population was recorded in excess of 33 million of which around 3.2 million have internet access, representing 9.6% of the population (www.internetworldstats.com/af/ug.htm). What about the other 90.4% who are in the dark? Unfortunately, they will probably remain in the dark a little longer not only because of logistical obstacles such as power outages and lack of connectivity, but also because of the exorbitant costs of a data connection. But of the 9.6% who are “lit up”, according to the jargon, what kind of access do they have?

According to Aaron Saenz (on Singularity Hub) while “open and anonymous” internet access is good (anonymous in relation to internet policing in a world blighted by terrorist activities), but “fast and cheap” is just as important. We could not agree more! Of the 2 billion internet users worldwide, only 500 million have real broadband speeds. I thought I had a good broadband connection until I tried to connect to a live radio station in Ireland to listen to my local news; the message I got was “you are in a low bandwidth area” – and I pay 20 times more for my connection than my friends in Ireland. So “broadband” is not a static measurable, but rather a variable designation.

So to all of you out there who are rubbing your hands with glee, don’t get too excited about free internet access. MTN’s latest marketing campaign portrays the company as a temporary duty provider by giving 10 mega to each of its customers with a data package. This is good news for their subscribers, but it does not mean that the other telcos are duty bound to follow suit.

Professor Deirdre Carabine, Vice-Chancellor

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